With concern over the cost of capital punishment rising, California voters may be poised for a historic vote to abolish the state's death penalty, a new Field Poll indicates.
Support for the measure, Proposition 34, remains below 50 percent. But the poll released this morning found 45 percent of likely voters favor replacing the punishment with life in prison, while 38 percent oppose doing away with capital punishment.
Another 17 percent say they remain undecided.
The latest survey shows support for abolishing the death penalty rising as Election Day nears. A Field Poll released in September found 42 percent in favor of the measure and 45 percent opposed, with 13 percent undecided at that time.
"It's certainly an encouraging poll for the Proposition 34 supporters, but it still has a long way to go," Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo said. "It's got to get above 50 percent, and it's moving in the right direction."
DiCamillo said many measures tend to lose support after voters take a closer look at the issues, but Proposition 34 "is actually gaining strength as voters learn more about it."
That may stem from the fact that there is an increasing number of likely voters – 53 percent in the new poll – who have concluded that maintaining the death penalty is more expensive than keeping inmates in prison for the rest of their lives.
The proponents of Proposition 34 have based their campaign on that notion, saying California could save hundreds of millions of dollars by doing away with the death penalty and that the state has spent $4 billion to execute only 13 inmates since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978.
"The single issue that reasonates is cost," said Sacramento attorney Don Heller, who wrote the initiative that restored the death penalty in California in 1978 but now opposes capital punishment.
"Even when you address the issue of potentially executing an innocent person, it's the cost that reasonates. All of a sudden it's being brought home, when counties are going bankrupt and cities are going bankrupt, that there's just not enough money out there."
Death penalty supporters dispute the cost savings claims and questioned the latest poll figures, especially the finding that 17 percent of voters are undecided on such an issue.
"This poll shows that Proposition 34 continues to be under 50 percent," said Peter DeMarco, a spokesman for opponents of the measure. "It's never been above 50 percent since the beginning of the campaign.
"And I think the 17 percent undecided is significantly inaccurate for an issue that is of such familiarity in California."
DeMarco said he believes that when voters are asked to actually decide, they will trend toward keeping the death penalty in place. He noted that numerous law enforcement groups, prosecutors and political leaders have spoken out against Proposition 34.
On Tuesday, former Govs. Gray Davis, Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian came out against the initiative. Measure opponents plan another announcement in Sacramento today for local law enforcement officials to call for a no vote.
Proposition 34, which is being spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union, would abolish the death penalty and convert all existing death sentences to life without the possibility of parole. The measure also would take $100 million from the state's general fund and direct it toward homicide and rape investigations.
If the measure passes, California would join 17 states that do not have the death penalty.
Supporters say it could save $130 million annually, an assertion that appears to be resonating with voters.
The latest poll found 53 percent of likely voters believe the death penalty costs more than a sentence of life in prison, compared with 41 percent who believed that in a 2011 Field Poll. A 1989 poll found only 26 percent of likely voters believed the death penalty was more expensive.
The poll also found an increasing number of people confident that a sentence of life without parole means that an inmate will not someday be released. One of the concerns opponents have raised is that as long as a convict is alive, there's a chance he could somehow win release.
In 1989, 27 percent of likely voters said a life sentence guaranteed an inmate would never get out of prison, compared with 45 percent in a survey last year. In the latest poll, 47 percent said such a sentence guarantees an inmate will never get out.
The poll of 1,566 likely voters was taken in two waves of telephone questioning, the first from Oct. 17-24 and the second from Oct. 25-30, and the initiative gained support in the later survey period.
In the first wave, the measure was nearly tied, with 41 percent saying they would vote to abolish the death penalty and 40 percent opposed. It was in the second round of interviews that support rose to 45 percent.
But some of those surveyed said Thursday that their responses were not that clear-cut.
Patricia Obannon, a Sacramento woman listed as undecided, said she already voted absentee and came out against the death penalty because of concerns that an innocent person could be executed.
"I also would have voted for a chain gang, let them pick up trash," she said. "I've been told that would be more of a deterrent than the death penalty."
Earl Fite, a Red Bluff man, said he was listed as undecided simply because he has not yet read up on the initiatives and plans to do so before he votes Tuesday.
"Actually, I've always kind of been in favor of the death penalty," he said.